I saw something cool this week at Microsoft’s Convergence user conference that made me convinced that anyone who thinks Microsoft isn’t a player against Apple’s IOS and Google’s Android needs to think twice. Make that three times. A little face time with Windows 8 running on a Samsung tablet and a Lenovo laptop/tablet hybrid made me wish I could justify adding one more techy toy to my collection.
And that was just the part of the conference that appealed to my geeky nature. Because the enterprise software side of the conference had me convinced that anyone thinking that Microsoft Dynamics isn’t a player against SAP, Oracle, Salesforce.com and Infor needs to rethink their position a few times too. From Dynamics’ hybrid cloud strategy to the growing market acceptance of its flagship AX and CRM software to the growing strength of its large enterprise direct sales and services strategy, the message was clear: Dynamics isn’t just playing in the big leagues, it’s poised to be a major contender.
And don’t just take my word or the word of the company’s executives, the customers I talked to made it clear that they were ready to vote with their dollars. In conversation after conversation the message was consistent: AX and Dynamics CRM are viable alternatives to SAP and Oracle in a number of clearly strategic areas. In the case of SAP, it was the ability of AX to play in the subsidiaries and other tier two entities of SAP’s large enterprise customers. In the case of Oracle, it was the ability of Dynamics CRM to be the replacement of choice for Siebel customers looking for a desperately needed refresh. And those were just two of the bigger pipelines for Dynamics in its competitors’ markets.
Microsoft’s emerging hybrid cloud strategy also helps make it a uniquely powerful contender in a cloud market that, despite the success of Salesforce.com and the pending success of Workday, is really still in its infancy. That infancy, best characterized by Marc Benioff’s “end of software” battle cry, is looking more and more immature in the face of Microsoft’s hybrid strategy, which wisely leaves the timing of the “end” of software up to the customer, and not the vendor.
This “end of the end of software” strategy by Microsoft has two essential characteristics that will make it hard not just for Salesforce.com, but for SAP too. The first is the ability to deploy the identical software either on-premise or in the cloud, and to move back and forth between the two deployment modes. Dynamics CRM can do that now, NAV and GP will be able to do that in 2013, and AX will follow shortly thereafter. This strategy is really the ultimate in customer choice, because it acknowledges that there are many good reasons why the cloud simply isn’t a viable solution. (A new reason I hadn’t heard before was discussed by on-premise AX customer World Vision, a global charity that delivers goods and services to some of the poorest countries in the world – places where Internet services aren’t advanced enough to support a cloud deployment. )
Characteristic number two is the leeway Microsoft is giving its cloud customers in accepting upgrades to their software. The current plan for Dynamics CRM – which is to be replicated for the rest of the company’s cloud products – is that customers have up to a year to accept the upgrade, during which time they will be able to run on their current version. So as not to break the multi-tenancy model, Microsoft will cluster these “recalcitrants” in a separate instance according to their rev – which allows Microsoft to maintain the cost effectiveness of its multi-tenant model without force-feeding an upgrade on its customers. Coming a little bit further down the road will be the ability to run test and dev instances in the cloud as well, so that both upgrades and other changes can be tested before being made part of a live system. Just we do in the on-premise world today.
Taken together, these two components (three if you count the test and dev piece) of the strategy make it abundantly clear that, by comparison, Benioff’s “end of software” was more about the “end of customer choice.” This, in fact, becomes the underpinning of Dynamics’ cloud strategy: the “beginning of customer choice” in the cloud. (Microsoft isn’t alone in this strategy – Hewlett Packard has also actively supported this version of customer choice in the cloud, and is expected to showcase more of its strategy at an analyst event in Boston next week.)
Let me add two more highlights of this year’s Convergence, both adding strongly to the customer choice theme: The first was the fact that Microsoft across the board will actively support heterogeneity in the operating system and browser worlds. This means that customers and partners that want to access Dynamics on IOS and Android devices, or make their web pages sing on Safari, Firefox, and Chrome, will be getting the full support of Microsoft’s technology and applications stack. This isn’t going to be mere window-dressing (pardon the pun): it’s part of a fully formed strategy of acknowledging the heterogeneity of the IT/consumer convergence (pardon the pun again) that has made supporting BYOD an essential component of every company’s IT strategy.
In a similar vein, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner revealed that Systems Center 2012 will support deployment of applications and services to any hardware, cloud, and virtualization platform Microsoft’s customers want to deploy. This support for hybridized, bring-your-own-platform strategies further enhanced the customer choice theme that Microsoft was clearly trying to emphasize. To great success, IMO.
Let me add a few more observations about Windows 8 and the Metro UI that it deploys. From an enterprise standpoint, this isn’t just a me-too IOS or Android user experience, but a complete refresh. The standout capability for me was the ability to navigate through a tablet’s applications by treating the workspace like a map that can be zoomed in and out, allowing a user to increase or decrease the detail and visibility of individual applications or functions the way zooming in and out of a map changes the granularity of the map’s geographical features. Kind of brings to mind a fractal space reminiscent of Benoit Mandelbrot’s famous paper “How long is the coast of Britain?” That’s just one of many standout features that I can see making serious inroads into Apple’s still nascent enterprise efforts.
With that long list of positives, let me close with two things that were clearly missing in the admittedly full plate that was being served to Convergence attendees. The first was any overt mention of SQL Server 2012 and the BI and analytics capabilities that it lends to Dynamics. This was a significant omission not just because of the obvious need for Dynamics customers to know where to go when they want to up the ante in the big data/big analysis wars. It was also significant insofar as SQL 2012 has some new capabilities – including in-memory, columnar database processing – that, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, has become one of the major points of contention between SAP (HANA) and Oracle (Exalytics). While sticking SQL 2012 into the Convergence fire hose wouldn’t have necessarily been a good use of time, being able to articulate an advanced DBMS and BI strategy in support of Dynamics would have spoken directly to a real customer need that should not be taken for granted no matter how well SQL Server’s BI capabilities are embedded in Dynamics.
Final gripe – everyone out there heard about the Azure Marketplace and Data Market? I didn’t think so. Let me fill in the omission with a link. And I have now given more airplay to these two very important, and very cool, parts of the overall Microsoft cloud strategy than they were given during the two days I was at Convergence. Too bad.
In the end, Convergence — playing to a record crowd of 10,000 – was further affirmation that Microsoft’s technology stack has its best and most powerful use case in the Dynamics marketplace, and that Dynamics, with the rest of Microsoft behind it, is making a case for putting its software up on the same short list as its much bigger rivals. And that’s without counting some pretty cool technology heading to the enterprise – and probably to my house as well – in the next 12 months.